Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: Pacific Vortex! by Clive Cussler.

New York: Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 266.

Clive Cussler's Pacific Vortex! occupies an interesting place in the Dirk Pitt series. While the first book he wrote, it is only the sixth that he published, actually appearing after 1981's Night Probe!1

As all this suggests, the book is evidently an early effort. Certainly many of the elements for which the series are well-known are present in this tale of Pitt going on vacation in Hawaii and getting caught up in the deadly intrigue surrounding a missing U.S. Navy submarine - the James Bondian adventure, particularly heavy on maritime action; the over-the-top villains with their nautically themed conspiracies. Yet, as Cussler himself acknowledges in his foreword, the plot is rather less intricate than in later books (let alone epics like Cyclops). The events of the story are limited to the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands, while the narrative is much more closely focused on Pitt's person and actions.

The writing also tends toward the thin rather than the lean. Ideas, descriptions, scenes are less thoroughly fleshed out than they would be in Cussler's later work, and in some cases, less fleshed out than they should be. The rationale for the villain's actions seems underdeveloped, as does his organization. The underwater complex that is the scene of the final confrontation, while adequately portrayed for the purposes of the climax, feels like an eccentric's hideout rather than the site of a community of hundreds it is supposed to be. Pitt's romance with Summer Moran is likewise underwritten, all the more so given the crucial event in Pitt's life that later novels have made it out to be.2 And Cussler's comparative casualness with technical detail gets to be a bit much. The story's MacGuffin, the submarine Starbuck, is held to be capable of a hundred and twenty-five knot speeds, without a single word offered as to what revolutionary technology enables this incredible performance.

Pitt's world also seems less fully "peopled" than it would later become. The fictional version of the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA) is less fully realized than it would be in his later work (though admittedly the organization plays a smaller part here than in most of his stories), and the entourage of characters readers are accustomed to seeing surrounding Pitt still only in development, and used in only limited ways. Admiral Sandecker puts in just a brief appearance at the start, while Al Giordino turns up only in time to take part in the finale. Rudi Gunn is merely mentioned, while Hiram Yeager, Julien St. Perlmutter and Loren Smith do not even seem to be a notion as yet.

Still, if the book comes off not only as a rough prototype for what Cussler would later write, but more generally displays many of the weaknesses common to authors' early efforts (as well as editing that would, in spots, make reviewers scream for blood if it appeared in an indie book), it also displays many of the virtues of those efforts. The action and plotting, while less inventive or elaborate than those of many of the later Pitt novels, nonetheless feel fresher. The same economy with prose that makes this shortest of Pitt's adventures feel thin in places also gives it a brisk pace that compares favorably with later works, like the flabby Trojan Odyssey. And the appeal of the essential concept, the talent of the author for telling this kind of story, are equally evident. The result is not the grandest or best of Pitt's adventures (I remain fondest of Cyclops, Treasure and Sahara), but one I found reasonably satisfying nonetheless.

1. That the first Pitt adventure written was not the first published is not unusual, many an author producing not just several books, but several in the same series, before getting one through the publishing industry's gauntlet - invariably kinder to the repetitive hackwork of an over-the-hill pro than the more original work of a first-timer. To cite but one example, Iain Banks' Consider Phlebas was actually his fourth Culture novel.
2. Those who read the more recent works will also be left wondering when Pitt could possibly have conceived the twins with her who figure so prominently in the novels from Valhalla Rising on. I understand that Cussler has admitted to "goofing" on this score.

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